Slightly smaller than Connecticut (the region covers 4,800 square miles), Nord-Pas de Calais is bounded on the west by 85 miles of coastline that serve as a gateway to the U.K. and the North Sea. To the north lies Belgium, to the south the Picardy region and to the east the Ardenne plateau. Home to 3.97 million people, it takes its name from the two départements that define its territory: Nord and Pas de Calais.

Colorful Flanders and Hainault.

In the region’s northern reaches lies Flanders, a land of fertile plains punctuated by verdant hills. It is the site of the city of Lille, which boasts a uniquely rich and varied architectural and cultural heritage. The old part of the city deserves a leisurely stroll to admire the historic houses with colorful, carved facades. The city is also an important artistic center, and modern art has found its way into the city’s new subway where contemporary creations have added an original touch. Greater Lille includes a total of 23 municipalities, among which those of Roubaix and Tourcoing, former textile towns that have been redeveloped into mail order and telecommunications centers.

South of Lille is an area known as Hainault, where painters have long captured the beauty of local landscapes in paintings that fill the museums of its cities: Valenciennes, Cambrai and Douai. The Cistercian Abbey in Vaucelles––the largest in Europe––and that of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux are monuments to the ancient art of stonemasonry. Valenciennes is closely identified with another time-honored art, that of lace-making.

Victor Hugo’s Favorite Landscape.

The former province of Artois lies on an extension of a Picardy plateau and occupies the region’s southern edge. It is a lush, sometimes damp, countryside that includes the rich agricultural plain fed by the Scarpe River around the main city, Arras. Visitors enjoy the woodlands and valleys that are ideal for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Victor Hugo spoke gloriously of the area and described it as “the most beautiful countryside in the world, hills and valleys rising in magnificent undulations.”

Lush pastures that feed its famous dairy cows, leafy hedgerows, rivers and forests make up the easternmost tip of the region–the Avesnois district. There, nature’s own rhythm reigns to make it an area of peace and quiet that is greatly appreciated by walkers and anglers.

Opalescent Waters and Northern Light.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the sandy beaches of the Côte d’Opale, so named after the opalescent Channel seawater, have been magnets first for vacationing Britons and now for tourists from all parts of the world. Stretching from Boulogne-sur-Mer, France’s leading fishing port, to the region’s southern boundary, the coast includes the resorts of Le Touquet, with its casino and 2,000 acres of woodland that shelter elegant villas, and Stella-Plage, where the pine-covered hinterland serves as a backdrop for the beaches. Another beach, Berck-Plage, was developed in the 19th century around a medical facility that still treats arthritic children with seawater baths.

The distinctive “northern light” found in Dutch and Flemish painting bathes Nord-Pas de Calais’ architectural heritage: colorful windmills, steep-gabled red brick facades, abbeys and chapels with richly adorned altars. Since Lille, Arras, Valenciennes and Douai were among the great trading centers of medieval Flanders, their stock exchanges and town halls with distinctive belfries are models of Flemish architecture. The streets of Lille bear more resemblance to those of Antwerp than to the Paris rues, and the windmills in the countryside recall landscape paintings of Flemish or Dutch artists. The region offers endless possibilities for sports and leisure activities. And with over 20 courses whose links rival those of neighboring Britain, Nord-Pas de Calais is a golfer’s paradise.

Nord-Pas de Calais includes only two départements:

  • Nord (59)
  • Pas de Calais (62)

Main cities:

  • Lille. The region’s capital is a city of contrasts, from the historic center to the glass towers of Euralille, the new district.
  • Calais. The world’s second leading passenger port, the city is separated from the English coast by only 23.5 miles of water.
  • Dunkirk. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed during World War II. It owes its revival to its harbor, which now houses a maritime museum.
  • Boulogne-sur-Mer. Once a Roman city, it is now Europe’s largest fishing harbor and home to an international fish-processing complex.
  • Douai. An industrial and intellectual center that has preserved its 18th-century layout and buildings.
  • Valenciennes. Also known as “the Athens of the North” because of its interest in the arts and the many artists who lived there.
  • Arras. Capital of Artois and home to the “Grand’Place” (square) whose facades are remarkable examples of 17th- and 18th-century Flemish architecture.
  • Lens. Remains of 11th-century fortifications can still be seen in this city located at the heart of a former mining region.
  • Béthune. Medieval city and important harbor on one of the canals that crisscross Northern France.
  • Le Touquet. Tucked between the sea and the forest, the resort has Old World charm and year-round sporting activities.